Navigating the modern moral landscape is a complicated task. Fiber optics, television, bullet trains and commercialized space flights have brought us spiritual dangers no different in character from ages past but exponentially more voluminous. The incessant onslaught of information has numbed our eyes and dulled our spiritual senses.
At best, the moral lines are blurred. At worst we are witness to, and participants in, a massive, tangled skein of sin; our own threads, contributing to the interwoven jumble, are obscured by the countless other threads, snowballing us into a moral morass. As an immediate result, we now tend to overlook our own sin and make pronouncements about the sins of the world — “social sins,” if you will.
“The Well-Ordered Man Makes the Good Society”
For generations our gaze of contemplation has been shifting from internal concerns of character cultivated by habits of mind to our feelings about things. Instead of discerning the objective facts surrounding events and actions, we base our judgments on the shifting sands of emotion that they call up within us. We’re much less concerned about offending God than we are about hurting the feelings of our neighbors. Surely we ought to love our neighbor too, however, to ignore our duty of fraternal correction out of a desire to appear “nice” or “tolerant” isn’t charitable, but self-serving.
In this age of inversion, we ignore the wisdom of the ancients which tells us that it is the well-ordered man who makes the good society, not the well-ordered society that makes the good man. The result of the shift in focus from personal sins to “social sins” is troubling. There is such a thing as “social sin” but we must rescue the concept from misguided concepts of “social justice” that tend to focus almost exclusively on the material concerns of material poverty and unfair wages. Not that these are not important social concerns; they too are “sins that cry out to heaven”. But Catholic Social Teaching includes several other social sins against life, such as abortion, contraception, same-sex “marriage”, euthanasia and transgender issues.
Pope St. John Paul II, in his Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliation and Penance (1984), clearly elucidates the nature of sin, both personal and social. He explains, “Sin, in the proper sense, is always a personal act, since it is an act of freedom on the part of an individual person and not properly of a group or community.” An individual may be clearly influenced by many dominant external issues as well as internal weaknesses, such as habits and proclivities. However, “it is a truth of faith, also confirmed by our experience and reason, that the human person is free. This truth cannot be disregarded in order to place the blame for individuals’ sins on external factors such as structures, systems or other people.”
Social Structures and Personal Sin
Today, the manner in which we tend to attribute personal sin to social structures and “social sins” is a denial of our God-given freedom and dignity. St. John Paul concludes, “there is nothing so personal and untransferable in each individual as merit for virtue or responsibility for sin.”
It’s a most intractable misunderstanding of modernity to believe that our socio-economic status is the determining factor in our ability to be moral. Think of the musical My Fair Lady, when the impoverished rapscallion Alfred P. Doolittle proclaims, “I can’t afford morals, guv’ner!” This leads to the false notions that morality is dependent upon our social status, instead of human freedom and dignity, in reference to the objective moral law.
If we reduce morality to a material dialectic, then of course our focus will be on who “has” and who “has not”, and the politics of envy will rule our proclamations on “social sin.” If we completely lack the material means for survival, this would be a mitigating factor in considering the guilt of sinful actions concerning material sustenance, but not a carte blanche. The truth is, social sins don’t lead to personal sins; rather, personal sins lead to social sins.
Complicity in Others’ Sins
We’re never responsible for the sins of another; we are only responsible for our free choices to act against God and nature. However, there are a number of ways we can participate in social sin.
If we choose to stand idly by while those around us sin, we become complicit.
If we participate in other people’s sin in any way, either voluntarily or directly, we become complicit.
If we approve of or praise others’ sins, we become complicit.
If we do not speak out against sins and even go so far as to protect those who sin, we become complicit.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in paragraph 1869, “sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. ‘Structures of sin’ are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn. In an analogous sense, they constitute a ‘social sin.’”
Illiberal “Tolerance” and Complicity
The very mechanism that drives our complicity in “social sins” is the distorted notion of “tolerance” which has become the illiberal order of the public square. We’re told we’re not only to be “tolerant” of social sins, but that we must accept and approve of them.
We’re compelled to actively and charitable stand against sins that “cry out to heaven” such as abortion, “gay marriage”, euthanasia, transgender issues, and many other offenses that are becoming normalized in this day and age. If we acquiesce, even by our silence, we’re complicit in the “social sins” of our day.
Our greatest social sin is that of the legal termination of an innocent human life in the womb. Every year in our country alone we sacrifice around one million innocent human lives at the altar of sexual license. The yearly world toll is staggering. This holocaust of the unborn is exacerbated by public endorsement of contraception. Abortion’s step-child and the next step for the advancement of the Culture of Death is the up-and-coming movement towards euthanasia.
Further social sin crying out to heaven is our societal embrace of unnatural sexual relationships. It began with same-sex “marriage”; where it will end is yet to be seen. Now we face an onslaught of issues in which the capriciously subjective “gender” claims preference over the inconveniently objective biological sex. We’re trying to rewrite the book of nature in our own hand; and to the extent that we participate, accept or approve, we are complicit in this “social sin” as well.
Our Call to Witness
We’re in a tough position right now as Catholics. The world claims that “social sin” is the cause of personal sin, and we must assert that it’s just the opposite. The world has inverted the order of morality: sins such as abortion, sodomy, euthanasia, and many other offenses against God and nature are now called “good”; and it’s a “sin”, according to the world, to oppose them.
As Catholics, if we don’t take a stand against these sins, our complicity in the larger social sins which are eclipsing the moral good become personal sins. It takes faith and courage in this day to stand up for the moral truths expressed by Holy Mother Church, but this is our call to witness.
We can speak out against these sins with charity and grace if we take these things to prayer. Let us stand united as the members of the Body of Christ against the real social sins that plague this land, that we might by fraternal correction colonize heaven.